UNITY, Maine — Blake Wilder crouched atop a round of poplar Thursday morning and — despite the heat, the sweat and his tired muscles — used a practice ax to methodically, energetically chop the wood in two.
“I don’t care who you are or what shape you’re in,” the recent Unity College graduate said, breathing heavily after he was done. “If you chop a block for 30 seconds, you’re tired.”
Wilder, a 22-year-old originally from Lamoine, has dreams of being the best collegiate lumberjack in the whole country. In April, he won at a northeast regional woodsmen’s meet held at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, and on Saturday, June 20, he will sharpen up his ax, saw and chain saw skills to compete at the Stihl Timbersports Series National Championships in Central Park in New York City.
The wiry woodsman — all 6 feet and 160 pounds of him — will compete against five other lumberjacks in four different disciplines that use many of the skills that old-time Maine loggers needed to do their jobs.
“All the events in some way are tied into what happened in lumberjack camp,” Wilder said. “It keeps the tradition alive.”
He said that before coming to Unity College as a freshman studying conservation law, he had used a chain saw, but wasn’t otherwise familiar with lumberjack skills. The Unity College Woodsmen’s Team is one of the largest and best-established clubs on campus, and includes both women and men. Wilder was intrigued.
“I came here, saw this club, and thought I’d give it a try,” he said. “The next thing I knew, I was president of the team.”
Pat Clark, the longtime coach of the woodsmen’s team, said that when she was studying at the University of Maine in the 1960s, women weren’t allowed to get involved.
“I knew it was an exciting sport,” she said.
Now, she enjoys teaching woodsmen’s skills to any Unity College student who is interested in learning.
“It’s physically challenging. It gives you confidence. It helps you grow,” she said. “It’s like a big family. It’s competitive, but not cutthroat. Even though we compete against Orono and Colby, it’s like a family.”
She said that her athletes call her “Mama Pat” because she takes care of them, and it is obvious that she cares. As Wilder practiced the standing block chop, which mimics chopping down trees in the woods, one of his blows went a little off course. He struck the metal stanchion that held the block of wood in place with his practice ax, which is blunter than the ax he’ll use in competition. The ax bounced off the metal, making a dissonant clanging sound that made Clark wince.
Wilder kept going, swinging again and again until he cut through the block of wood. Then he sat down and checked out the damage — he had hit his foot with the ax, which cut through his sneaker and made a small rip in the chainmail foot and leg protection he was wearing. The blow also bruised his toes, but the lumberjack put his shoe back on and grabbed his ax to keep on practicing. It was the first time he had hit his foot, he said, adding that it would be the last.
Clark and Wilder both said it is hard to make a living being a lumberjack nowadays. Wilder, who just started working as a police officer in Fairfield, spent a couple of summers working at Timber Tina’s Great Maine Lumberjack Show in Trenton. The performers even went to New York City to do a demonstration show at a trade exposition, he said.
“I’ve carried an ax through New York City before,” Wilder said. “It wouldn’t be the first time. But it’ll be my first time carrying an ax in Central Park.”
The Stihl Timbersports collegiate competition will be streamed live on the Internet at 1:30 p.m. Saturday, June 20. It will be broadcast on ESPNU at 6:30 p.m. Friday, July 17. For information, visit www.stihlusa.com/stihl-timbersports/.